Monday, August 9, 2010

"Freedom, Equality, Property, and..."

There's a great, and well-known, passage in Capital that marks the transition from the critique of the process of exchange to the critique of the process of production that reads:
This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all. 
As our reading of A Brief History of Neoliberalism underlined (see especially Chapter 2), many of these same elements are still part of the justification of deregulated markets, etc. We see, in contemporary ideology, the ascription of sanctity to freedom and property, with the presupposition that each individual enters the market as an equal. But I've been wondering for the past few weeks about who would be-- in the hypothetical case that one of my papers would be paraphrasing this passage, more specifically a paper on Lukacs-- a good contemporary replacement for Bentham. 

At first I thought of busting Zizek's move of replacing 'Freedom, Equality, Property, ...' with academic buzzwords like 'desiring-machines, multitudes, etc.' but this doesn't work for what I want to do. My point isn't a critique of competing philosophical approaches, but a critique of capitalism, so the important point isn't how our French comrades talk about it, but how liberals and neoliberals talk about it. It needs to be a figure that the 'responsible' political theorist (if he or she accidentally walked into the conference room) would feel obligated to defend because obviously I'm making a mockery of the serious thought that this particular figure represents.

So I've got two names: Rawls and Nozick. They obviously have different connotations. Rawls might be good, because in the general liberal way of thinking, he supplies the 'veil of ignorance' quality to the legal structures surrounding the market, replacing the history behind it with a very thought experiment-y abstraction. Then again, Nozick's best-known justification for the market and its apparatus, the labor and transfer Lockean jive (although I hear he backtracked a bit at some point), basically boils down to what I called, in a similar context, the philosophical equivalent of money laundering. I've also considered Habermas, and even Sloterdijk (although the latter's recent work might just be a bit too outlandish for these purposes).

I find that Rawls is more likely to be the figure that the 'responsible' political theorist feels obligated to defend. But now that I think of it, I might work this very discussion about substitution into the paper itself, proceeding from Bentham, to Rawls, to Nozick, to Habermas.

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